A very open and honest conversation with Curaçao born, Netherlands raised – global citizen Sue Stephens, who currently resides in Singapore. As Facebook’s Country Lead for Business Growth in Malaysia, Sue helps her team scale their impact through digital adoption. She has spent the last fifteen years building her industry experience, spanning across various job functions, including Human Resources Manager at Canon and Head of Customer Success at LinkedIn. She has also held various leadership roles in Europe.
Sue made the Financial Times Top 30 Ethnic Minority Leaders in 2017 for her work with underrepresented talents; an experience that has made a lasting impression on her. Coming from humble beginnings and knowing first hand that opportunities aren’t distributed equally, Sue continuously tries to make a difference for those following in her footsteps.
What would you call your leadership style?
I would say I am compassionate, kind and fair; this can often be confused with weakness. Kindness is one of the core values I have learned from my mother which to this day is at the centre of my leadership style. When you don’t have a lot to give, you can still give people your respect. So, I aim for all my work relationships to be built on transparent communication and psychological safety. So, if we are going to arrive at the point where it becomes clear you are not meeting expectations, it would never come as a surprise. In the past I have had to let go of employees and have done so with grace helping them find alternative roles.
Has making the Top 30 Ethnic Minority Leaders list impacted you in any way?
Funnily, I didn’t grasp the weight of making it onto the list when I was first nominated. I actually felt at odds, because I wanted to be acknowledged for my achievements; not just for being an ethnic minority. Then I got to thinking, there are very few leaders who look like me working on the same level. Whether I wanted or not, I was a role model for underrepresented talent and, therefore, in a position to help others. I realised there is power in sharing my story with others. This became all the more clear when I made the list. Several professionals reached out to tell me how much they saw themselves in me. Up until that moment, I had never opened up about my humble upbringing, or my experiences with racial prejudice. I even opened up about my decades long struggle with hair oppression; and why I wear my hair naturally today.
Has embracing your natural hair caused a shift in behaviour towards you?
The shift was within myself. Embracing my own hair gave me a sense of empowerment unlike any other. There is this misconception for us black women that exposing our natural hair will hinder our success. Wearing it straight also meant that I did not have to deal with anyone trying to touch it or having to explain my hair texture. But, I reached a point where I grew tired of all the painful chemicals, weaves and expensive braids. I wanted to put all the struggle behind me and simply be myself. Once I made the decision, life just got easier. I am even more comfortable in my skin and do not concern myself with other people’s opinions of my hair.
Have there been many instances of racial prejudice throughout your career?
Unfortunately, there have been a couple of unpleasant occurrences, such as being rejected for a role and when asked for feedback I was told it was because of something I would not be able to change anyway. Also, being an outspoken woman of colour has not always gone down very well. When I first moved to Asia, I was advised to make it clear that I was not from Africa but from Europe. This really got to me. I personally never operated from a place of inferiority or believed my life would be harder because I was Black and Female. My narrative is about so much more. Yet, here I was having to establish and build my credibility with people who questioned my very presence.
How do you deal with prejudice at this stage in your career?
Asia was a bit of an uncharted territory for me when I first moved here, and I am still learning. However, I hold on to three principles when I am faced with difficult challenges. My default is to assess my inner dialogue first. We tend to defeat ourselves by getting too much in our heads or by believing narratives others ascribe to us. So, I first try to analyse things calmly, reflecting on what’s happening within me and why this might be the case. If I can’t come up with a solution, I will reach out to a trusted circle of people for guidance. They are usually mentors or senior confidants who have had similar experiences – or have first-hand experience working in the Asian market. Relationships really matter in our business and are key for a successful career. Lastly, I believe in therapy and coaching. I know we don’t often talk about these things in the black community, but I have invested a great deal in both. Growing up in The Bijlmer (underprivileged part of Amsterdam) didn’t leave much room to be vulnerable. You simply had to get on with it, so this is something I had to learn through therapy and coaching. In turn, being vulnerable made me realise I needed others to help me succeed.
Can you elaborate on why relationships are so important for a successful career?
Building relationships means investing in people, getting to know them, and nurturing that bond over time. This is why I hate the term “networking”. I am still in touch with my internship supervisor from when I was 20. We email each other twice a year to check in on each other. You never know who is going to open the door for you in the future, or if you could be the one helping them in return.
What is the best piece of career advice no one ever told you?
The longest relationship you will ever be in is with yourself. So, affirm yourself and own your agency. You can turn to others for help with a lot of things. However, there comes a time you have to decide which inner dialogue you are going to feed. The world is not fair, and I cannot control how people see me or treat me, but I choose to act my agency, to become a mentor for Roots Inspire and share my stories in the hope it inspires others. I have opened myself up to people, which has led to some of the most profound experiences in my life. I decide to affirm myself every day.